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Read our latest newsletter: February 2017.

Report urges action to prevent assaults at state colleges

When state education officials commissioned a study on campus violence in 2008, the country was reeling from the massacre that left 32 dead at Virginia Tech. The report, responding to the threat of its time, focused heavily on preventing campus shootings.

On Tuesday, in an updated version of the report, recommendations respond to a different threat: sexual violence at the state’s 29 public colleges and universities.

The report comes at a time when pressure from the federal government and a spate high­profile cases — from Stanford to Worcester Polytechnic — have kept sexual assault in the headlines.

The report recommends that schools deal with sexual assault by focusing on preventing, reporting, and responding to violence. Informing incoming students through a required presentation does not go far enough, said the report, commissioned by the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education.

“It needs to go past the half­hour presentation at freshman orientation,” said Maureen Gallagher, the policy director of Jane Doe Inc., a Massachusetts advocacy organization. Gallagher, a member of the report task force, said education on consent and healthy relationships must be ongoing throughout a student’s time in college, and must accommodate diverse learning styles.

Becky Lockwood, an associate director at UMass Amherst’s Center for Women and Community, said the college is exploring ways to take educational material beyond orientation, so the information is not lost during a hectic first­year move­in weekend. Lockwood said UMass Amherst has seen success in integrating sexual violence awareness material into introductory public health classes. “We need to think creatively,” she said.

The latter is of particular concern at UMass Amherst, where, Lockwood said, some students have reported experiencing violence but did know where to seek help or what to do afterward.

Dena Papanikolaou, general counsel for the state’s Department of Higher Education, said the 2008 report was a direct response to the shooting at Virginia Tech and, because of that, overlooked what many call a campus epidemic.

“While mass shootings are the most visible form of campus violence, they are not the most common,” said Papanikolaou, who chaired the task force. “It’s far more common for students, faculty, and staff to be victims of sexual assault.”

The report also assessed the steps state colleges and universities have taken on active­shooter threats in recent years, and commended them for making considerable progress. The first report recommended that campuses install security cameras. Since then, the number of schools with cameras has nearly doubled to about 90 percent. 

In 2008, two­thirds of the campuses lacked mass­notification systems. Now, every one is outfitted with a system that can alert faculty, students, and staff through text, e­mail, or a public­address system.

However, the report also said many schools must improve the locks on building and classroom doors. One­third of campuses reported that they are unable to remotely lock these doors, and seven campuses said that none of their classroom doors could be locked from the inside.

Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, said such reports function best when they allow for flexibility, and when they can be deployed by institutions of varying kinds and sizes.

“As we’ve learned, campus environments are always going to be changing,” Kiss said. “The way a campus can be most successful is to build a program based on what their climate’s needs are.” 



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